March 24, 708 CR
Four days ago the news reached Lake Barnhardt that the quarantine had finally been lifted from Metamor Keep. The plague that had slain over five dozen and nearly killed a hundred more was over and defeated and Metamor's enemies had been frustrated anew. The celebrations that began were shared by all and accompanied by singing, dancing, feasting, and general merry-making. Not a single soul in all of Metamor was immune to the joy that suffused the people at their deliverance from an enemy they could not see nor could they take up arms against. And they grieved anew for the many husbands, wives, sons, and daughters who had fallen victim to the hideous malady.
Captain Dallar's squad returned to Metamor that evening, and it was the first time that many of them had set foot within the walls of Metamor in almost five months. And the last time they had been there they had been just released from the dungeons and assigned to Dallar's squad. For the four surviving members of the late Ambassador Yonson's personal guard, it was a strange homecoming since they did not truly have a home at Metamor to return to, and they had all made friends with the people of Lake Barnhardt. But they were soldiers of Metamor now and so they dutifully returned.
Dallar well knew their misgivings and so suggested several places around town that they might make their home, and while the celebrations continued, they, with Jessica always at their side, followed up on the ram's suggestions.
It did not take them long to make a decision. The Twin's Hearth had sufficient rooms that they could afford on their soldier's pay, one for the recently wed Larssen and Maud, another for Van, and one more for Weyden. And, once they were wed, that last would do for both Weyden and Jessica. While she had quarters in the Keep already, she knew that her husband-to-be would not like to be very far from his dearest friends, and after spending the last month with them at Lake Barnhardt, she did not care to be parted from them either.
And yet, there were still things in Lake Barnhardt that needed her attention. Specifically the hyacinth. She dare not bring it to Metamor for fear that it would be destroyed by overzealous but well-meaning friends – they would remember what Yonson's hyacinth had done and mistake her own innocent flowering for that former evil. And so it remained in the rooftop garden where few would ever notice it.
And those that did would never remember it.
Jessica's beak cracked in a faint grin as she angled over the lakeside town, circling around until she landed on the top of the barracks where she had made her home since her return from Marzac. There in one corner she had created her garden, a small plot of fresh soil watered from cisterns of rain and snowmelt. Little green plants that would soon flower in a bright array ran along the edge, while at the center stood the hyacinth. It's tall stalk with lines of purple blooms almost bent toward her as she landed, sharp talons scratching the stone roof.
"Hello my friend," Jessica said as she folded her wings along her back and hopped toward the garden. "And how are you today?"
Of course the hyacinth did not answer. But she liked to talk to it anyway. With an excursion of will, she saw the lines of magic illumine the hyacinth. The light and bands of energy flowing into this one flower, swallowed into the cups lining its stem, cast a pale brilliance on the garden, the barracks, and the mountain wall rising a short distance beyond the city wall. She touched those lines of magic, testing them and feeling them, noting their strength and fidelity.
One of them she knew quite well. It was the spell that kept Maud a giraffe and had done so since their wedding nine days ago. The cord of magic flowed through her feathers and wing claws, coiling almost like a snake as it flowed, waves of power passing back and forth from the hyacinth as if it were deep breaths going in and out. Her golden eyes bored into the strand and noted the faint creases and fissures that had begun to form. The spell was starting to fray.
Jessica intoned a strengthening spell and felt the power flow through her, the hyacinth, and into that cord. One of the little plants at the edge of the garden trembled and began to wither. But the cracks in the stream of magic leading to Larssen's wife closed up.
"Almost two weeks now," she murmured to herself. "Maybe another week. Until you have more strength." She reached out with one wing and caressed the violet cups. Their velvety petals made her tail feathers tremble in warmth.
Strength will come with practice.
"And that I will do," she said softly to herself, fluttering her wings as they settled against her back. The hawk wished to stay and admire her craft, but she knew that it were best if she return straight to Metamor. Not that Weyden would begin to worry – he never worried for her like that – but that he would begin to miss her, and nothing could touch her heart like his gentle care for her.
Jessica turned, spreading her wings wide, finally hearing the sound of boots climbing up the staircase and pressing open the rooftop hatch. A familiar red-haired woman dressed in woodland garb with gold trim at her shoulders and down the front of her tunic to mark her as a captain in Lord Barnhardt's militia. Her face, worn by more than fifteen years outdoors in cold winters and rainy springs, warmed with a bright, dimpled smile when her eyes met the hawk's. "Jessica! What a pleasant surprise to see you again!"
"Naomi!" Jessica cawed and hopped toward the captain of Lord Barnhardt's archers. She wrapped her wings about the woman as arms slid through her feathers to return the embrace. "It is good to see you too. How is your family?"
Naomi's face flushed slightly as she drew back from the hawk's black feathered chest. "Difficult now. Edgar's change started two days ago and just finished. He's taken after his mother."
Jessica blinked and lowered her wings. Edgar had turned thirteen years only a few months back and what few times Jessica met him had been anxious about what the Curses would do to him. He'd been the only surviving child from Naomi's first marriage. The archer's wife had died at the Battle of Three Gates, but a year later Naomi married the blacksmith and by that wolf had two daughters of her own, both bright faced and adorable children who seemed confused in how they were to take after a mother who didn't act like the other women they knew. "Oh my! How is he... she... taking the change?"
"Edgar's resigned. For now. He," Naomi visibly winced as she corrected herself, "she doesn't want to talk to me yet, but she did cry a good bit on Harald's shoulder last night." She shook her head. "It's so difficult for our children. They grow up knowing this change is coming, but they have no idea what it will do to them. We suffered it all at once never knowing that it was coming. They have years to ponder and hope."
"Did she ever say what she wanted to become?" Jessica asked. She might not be able to make Edgar a boy again, but there were two other Curses that could be fixed to him. And with the magic of the Curse only now incarnating itself in Edgar's flesh, perhaps the spell was weaker and more malleable.
"No," Naomi replied with a sigh. "I hoped Edgar would become a wolf like Harald, but... what's done is done."
Jessica paused, a slight breeze dragging the scent of the hyacinth's flowers through her beak. She took half a step back as if pulled toward the garden. In a low voice, slow, almost hesitant, she said, "I might be able to help. The Curse on Edgar is still fresh; it might be weaker and, perhaps even removable."
Naomi's eyes widened. "Is that possible?" The hope in her face quickly fell. "But I could never get her hopes up like that only to see them dashed. I... I don't want her to feel what I felt."
"Anger and resentment?"
"For a long time; even after I married Harald."
"Didn't you love him even then?"
"As a woman loves a man, oh aye. But a part of me didn't want to stop being a man either. It wasn't until... really until Heidi was born that I finally accepted I was a woman now and always would be. Oh, Jessica! I wish I were a better woman than I am, a better mother even. But... but I just never learned from my own mother."
Jessica wrapped the upset mother in her wings and said nothing for several long moments. Naomi struggled to regain her composure but it took nearly a minute before she pushed away and smiled to show that she was all right. "I'm glad you came here. I'm.. sorry. I didn't mean to be quite so emotional."
"But Edgar's just changed and in one of the hardest ways possible. I wish you'd let me do something about it."
Jessica swallowed and sighed. "I don't know. I've never examined anyone who's just been changed by the Curses. But I would very much like to try."
"But I don't want to get his," Naomi's face pinched in anger, "her hopes up."
"Invite me to share your supper this evening. With your family gathered together, I can study Edgar surreptitiously. No one ever need know."
Her face softened. "Do you not have to return to Metamor?"
"It is a short flight. Weyden will understand when I tell him."
A faint smile pierced the red-haired woman's gloom. "Then I do invite you to supper this night, dear Jessica! Thank you!"
The two women hugged and Naomi turned back toward the staircase back down into the barracks. "Oh!" Naomi said after taking the first step. "I almost forgot to tell you. I came up here when I saw you because somebody came here looking for you only an hour ago. Berchem of Glen Avery."
Jessica felt her stomach tighten. "What did he want?"
"He wouldn't say, but he started off for Metamor when told that is where you live. He was walking so you should pass him on your way back."
"Then I shall find out what he wants, and be back here before the sun sets." She bent over and wrapped Naomi in one wing. "And even if I cannot do anything for Edgar, she has a wonderful example in her mother."
Naomi's smile broadened as she returned the embrace.
It was not difficult to find the skunk along the winding southeasterly road toward Metamor. He walked alone in the middle of the road, his pace smooth and measured, his tail long and curling up behind his head, bobbing up and down with each step. The road passed through a series of hills, cleared between ten and twenty feet on either side by the woodcutters last year. Watch towers were positioned at the tops of hills just far enough apart that they could see each other except in the foulest of weather, but even they could not see into all of the dells and crannies through which the road passed.
And into one of these Jessica dived just ahead of the skunk, close enough that he would see, but far enough away that it would take him another minute to reach her. The hawk used this time to preen her feathers and to steel herself. The last time she had seen this man had been just before Maud and Larssen's wedding. He'd been rude and unpleasant then, and even after the Marzac-induced agony in his mind had passed, he'd not shown any but the most perfunctory expressions of gratitude.
So why did he want to see her now when he never had wanted to see her even when he needed her help? She had no answers and could only wait.
Berchem came over the rise and his expression was one of mild relief as he spotted her waiting for him at the nadir of the road. Jessica waited while his quiet steps carried him down the hard-packed slope, a small pack bouncing on one shoulder, and only a long knife at his side for defense. He slowed halfway down and nodded his head, "How did you know I was looking for you?"
"Captain Naomi told me. I just saw her in Lake Barnhardt a short time ago."
"I left the Glen a little too early this morning then." Berchem stopped and shrugged the pack off his shoulder and set it on the ground between his booted paws. "But I just couldn't wait any more."
Jessica folded her wings against her back and narrowed her golden eyes. "What do you want from me?"
He lowered his snout and sighed. "First, to thank you for helping me. If you hadn't done any of what you did, I would have died before James defeated the evil in him. I didn't say it when I should have and I'm sorry."
From the tone of his voice and stooped posture, Jessica had the sense that his apology was genuine if difficult. It must have weighed on him for some time if he felt he had to come all this way to apologize given that she had otherwise hoped never to see him again. Jessica let some of that indignation out. "So? Why bother at all?"
Berchem's hands balled into fists, tail lowered, and his muzzle ground together as he schooled himself against humiliation. "Because I'm sorry about that and many other things I've done to you and to others. It didn't even take nearly dying to do this, which I'm ashamed to say." His eyes bore into the ground beneath her talons and he took a deep breath to still a sudden tremor in his flesh. "Baerle confronted me... what she said... I didn't like it at all, but... it did make me think."
Jessica did not move from where she stood towering over the almost crouching skunk. "What did she say?"
Berchem put one paw to his head and rested his fist over his heart. "Whatever you may think of me, I have always wanted one thing: to have a son and raise him up to be a good man. That desire has borne on my heart even before I attained my manhood – even before I lost my family to Nasoj. There've been women through the years, but none ever stayed with me long until Baerle. We both lied to each other, but me more than she. She lied about her barrenness, something she admitted and apologized for. But my lie was much worse."
He beat his fist against his chest and snarled under his breath. "My lie was that I loved her. I did care for her and I did want her to be safe. But not for her. For the boy she could give me. I loved that idea more than her, and it is what drove her and every other woman from me. Now that I see it, I... I am so empty and miserable. I want... want so badly to do better, but, I just don't know how."
Jessica felt a slight stirring of compassion for the skunk. His voice was jagged and torn and there was no question of his sincerity. But she would not let it be left just at that. With icy precision, she pressed at his pain to see how deep it went. "And even if Baerle hadn't been barren, what then? She may have never borne you a boy? How would you have treated the daughters she or any other woman gave you?"
Berchem gasped and lowered his snout further, curling his claws and dragging them against his tunic. "I probably would not have been much of a father to them. I probably would have... no, I would have resented Baerle for it. I know I would have. And I would have been terrible to a daughter. I was to my little sister. Oh, Artela forgive me! She just wanted to be with her big brother, but..." And then he did something she had never expected; the skunk archer, the haughty warrior, fell down on his knees and wept with fierce racking sobs.
Dumbfounded, and the iciness in her heart cracking in the face of the skunk's misery, Jessica could only watch as he wept. Sorrow upon sorrow gushed from his chest in human cries and beastly hisses. He beat his fists against the ground and lashed his tail back and forth as the shame of his sins overwhelmed him. She hoped that for his sake no travelers or merchants would pass them by.
But the storm of anguish could not last forever. Putting one paw on the pack resting before him, Berchem pushed himself back to his feet and took several deep breaths. "Did your negligence get your sister killed?"
Berchem's snout twitched but neither smile nor moue emerged. "That is one consolation; it was not my fault she died. My family was killed during Nasoj's first invasion. I almost saved my little sister; I carried her down into the caves, but her wounds were too great for Burris."
He said first.
Jessica well remembered that, and did wonder what else Berchem had come for. But she too had lost her family during Nasoj's first siege of Metamor almost nine years ago now. "What was your sister's name?"
"Rhena," he replied with the first stirrings of a smile that touched his dark eyes. "She'd be celebrating her sixteenth year this Spring."
The hawk nodded and spread her wings in an inviting fashion. "Well, I forgive you for your rudeness to me. I did not expect a happy patient, but... I am glad that you have come to thank me. But that is not the only reason you've come seeking me."
"Nae," Berchem admitted with a heavy sigh. "There is one other thing. A boon, only one you can grant."
Her mind swirled with possibilities, but she preferred the skunk state them. "What boon?"
He spread his paws wide and nudged the pack with his boot. "I know what I've done wrong to the women in my life. But I don't know what I should do right. I don't know how I should treat women, how they wish to be treated, and what they hope for in a man. I don't know these things. I thought I did but I was so very wrong! So very wrong."
Each spell gives strength.
Jessica's beak cracked open in an avian grin. "I cannot tell you those things. You have to learn them on your own."
"I know," Berchem nodded. He glanced from side to side, anxious. "I do not smell anyone about... but I do not wish to be overheard."
Jessica cawed and lifted one wing, twiddling her wingclaws in the air to craft the requisite spell. A simple casting that no mage would be fooled by, but errant travelers or eaves-droppers would not so easily pierce that veil. "Even if they are nearby, they will not be able to hear us any more."
"Good," Berchem fidgeted with his collar and tunic, took a deep breath and straightened his arms out along his sides. "You told me that you could keep me a woman for weeks, even months. I... I..."
"I?" Jessica asked, prompting him even as her heart beat with the hope of irony.
"I wish you to do that!" Berchem gasped as the words tumbled from his throat. "Not for months, but for a few weeks. Make me into a woman so I can learn how a woman feels and what she needs. I... I haven't been able to get the idea out of my head since it first came to me after I finally realized what Baerle said about me was true. I want... I need to be a woman, Jessica. When I groom myself I think about how women must do so. When I sleep at night I wonder what dreams women have. When I see the women of the Glen together I yearn to know what they whisper to each other, and I yearn to whisper with them! It's gnawing at me like a beaver a tree, but it's taken me this long to muster the courage to even ask."
"Even being a woman for a few weeks won't teach you all that you want to know."
"I know," Berchem admitted with a swift nod. "But anything I can learn will help."
Jessica folded her wings behind her back again. "The people of Glen Avery will not treat you as a woman even if I make you one."
"I won't be going back until you make me a man again." The skunk grunted and flexed his fingers a bit. "It's so odd saying that." He lifted his eyes and met the hawk's predatory gaze. "I have asked Lord Avery for leave to see to personal matters down south. He has given me leave of my duties for a month, and if I need more time I am to write. He did not ask what I was going to do, and I do not wish him, nor any other in my home to know. I plan on traveling through the lands south of the Keep that lie beneath the Curse. I will stay for a few days in each town before moving on. I even have two pairs of woman's traveling clothes in my pack that should fit me... after you change me at least."
There was no question in Jessica's mind that she would do as the skunk asked, though she could think of at least five different ways the skunk's plans might go awry, including the possibility that as a woman she might end up bearing a son in a way Berchem never intended, be it from too much drink or being ravaged by bandits along the road. But as she studied the skunk, a surprising thought came to her, one that blossomed as quickly a a desert flower after a rain.
How much money does he have?
Jessica glanced at the small money pouch affixed to his belt and pointed at it with one wing. "How much were you going to pay me for these services?"
Berchem looked down and loosed the pouch from his belt. "How much do you ask for your spells?"
"How much do you have?"
The skunk's jowls bristled and his paws tensed around the drawstring. "I need this to pay my way these next few weeks. Living on the road and in taverns is not cheap."
"Nae, it isn't," Jessica agreed. "But you will learn nothing if you spend your time in a room which you pay for out of your pocket. And if disreputable men see you have a lot of coin, they are going to rob you and perhaps worse. If you have little, you'll need to work for your room and your meals, but greedy, contemptuous men are far less likely to hurt you."
Berchem scowled. "I can defend myself."
"You will be weaker as a woman. You want to know how they feel? Then vulnerability is part of it. Even with all my magic I feel it too. How much do you have? How much do you want to know what it is like to be a woman? How much do you want to one day have that family? How much do you wish to be the man for your family that you never were for Rhena?"
Berchem bristled even more, his tail flicking erratically from side to side. But the anger in him quickly wilted as those questions struck him to the quick. He opened the pouch and poured the contents into his palm. The coins made a satisfying clink as they piled atop his calluses. He rifled one claw through them, and then sighed. "Two gold suns, six silver moons and about twenty bronze crescents. This is all the money I have."
She bobbed her beak toward the coins. "Keep two silvers to make your first day easier, and I will take the rest. I will need the pouch."
With a long sigh, Berchem took two silver moons from the pile in his paw, and then carefully poured the rest back into the money pouch. He pulled the drawstring tight and tossed it on the ground next to her talons. "There. Your money. What would you like me to do now?"
Jessica put one talon over the pouch to guard it, but made no other moves toward the soon-to-be-female skunk. "You wish to be a woman. When I changed you before you were very buxom. How much like that do you wish to be again?"
"Not at all," Berchem replied with a quick shake of his head. "I want to be plain and unremarkable. Perhaps a little fetching, but... I don't want it to look like I had once been a man. And... a little closer to Rhena's age if you can."
"Younger too?" Jessica felt her heart warming to the idea. "That I can manage. Show me the garments you have. I'll see if I can match the size."
Berchem nodded as he bent over his pack. After undoing the drawstrings he pulled out a rolled up bundle of green and brown. He held it up to his chest and let the rest unroll down to just below his knees. It was a simple linen kirtle with brown skirt, and a patchwork of green and brown top and sleeves to suggest a two-piece gown instead of an unlaced pullover. From the size she judged that it would fit best were he a hand shorter. "I also have an apron dress that can cover this, and some simple undergarments. Walter told me they would match this; I'm glad she didn't ask who they were for."
Jessica nodded and waved at him with one wing, even as her tail feathers twitched in excitement. "You may not be able to wear those boots when the spell is complete."
He glanced at the leather boots that laced up to his shins. "I've gone barefoot before, but... I'll make do."
"Are you ready then?"
Berchem nodded slowly and stood up, holding the kirtle tightly in his paws. "No one is going to see either?"
"Can you hear anyone?"
The skunk listened for a moment. The air was full of birds singing sweet songs but nothing more. He shook his head and sighed. "Nae. I'm ready then."
Jessica's talons drew tighter over the pouch of money as she opened her eyes to the magical streams. It was becoming easier to craft spells to change her fellow Keepers, although it was still a challenge to balance the Curses correctly, especially when her subject had such specific requests. Maud had been easy to accommodate as she just wished to be a giraffe; rather Larssen wished her to be a giraffe and Maud was content to satisfy her husband. This time Jessica had to make sure that she made use of both the gender changing curse and the age reducing curse. More of one than the other, but not so much that the skunk had any control over either like a true victim would.
Her wing claws traced out the complicated weave into the shimmering blue nimbus before her, working as diligently and carefully as any sailor with his knots. The black mass that was the Curse, shimmered and bent beneath her ministrations, powered by the many cords of magic flowing past, as well as the few that she knew flowed right back to the hyacinth. These invigorated her spell, and even though they contained no image of what the change would do to Berchem, she could see in them feminine contours as if their essence, svelte and fine, danced through the veins of energy. Jessica tweaked that silhouette to something less exotic and a little younger, noting with satisfaction how, with only a little effort it yielded to her desires.
And through the swirling eddies of magic she could see the skunk waiting anxiously. Jessica wondered if he feared he might change his mind, or feared that he might like the change too much.
Would it matter?
Jessica spread her wings wide and anchored the spell to Berchem, wrapping it around him until it pulled taut against his essence. A low moan escaped his throat as his body was pressed in from all sides, the magic grasping him immediately and reshaping his flesh. The fur on the back of his head became flush and long, his shoulders and arms slender, his chest swelled with a young woman's breasts, and his hips bowed outward as his waist drew in. These and many other subtle changes washed through the skunk, until something much different stood there in now baggy tunic and breeches.
Her wings settled behind her back slowly as she watched Berchem stare at her arms and chest in wonder. Her hands, once callused from years of drawing a bow, were now smooth with thin, delicate fingers and claws. No longer did Berchem's chest and arms appear hard and taut; now they were soft, and smooth even through the fur and the male attire. Her face and snout were more angular, and less chiseled or square. Even her tail seemed to have a slightly different sway as it shifted back and forth as Berchem lifted one leg than the other, hips tilting away instead of toward each leg.
And in a softer, higher pitched voice, she murmured with awe and relief, "I'm... I'm a woman." she turned her paws one over the other, reached up and stroked across her snout and jowls. "Do I look all right?"
"You look like a woman," Jessica replied, feeling a warmth suffuse her. Suddenly, she didn't feel any animosity toward Berchem anymore. It was as if it had been washed away along with her masculinity. "You are a young, pretty woman now. As you wanted to be."
Berchem lowered her arms to the kirtle folded atop her pack, soft blue eyes blinking in wonder as she knelt down, her now ill-fitting breeches bunching around her waist. "I... I should change. But... I want to see myself first." She rifled through her pack and produced after a few seconds a small looking glass no wider than her first. This she held out, marveling at what she saw in the glass, turning her snout this way and that, thin lips stretching in a pleased but shy smile. In a choking voice full she said, "I am... young... and pretty. I... I don't..." she lifted her gaze to Jessica and clasped the looking glass to her chest. "Thank you, Jessica. I don't know what will happen to me on the road, but... I'll find out."
Jessica nodded and settled her wings behind her once again. "You may find out more than you expected, Berchem. Now hurry and change before somebody comes along."
The newly-female skunk shook her head, as she began to undo the lacing on her tunic and breeches. "I think I will go by Rhena for now. It feels right. Like my little sister has one more chance to be with her big brother." She turned around as she pulled the tunic over her head, hiding her nakedness from the hawk out of many years of habit. Jessica kept watch on the road while Rhena stripped down to her fur, and then wriggled into a set of linen undergarments of the sort that she remembered wearing in her youth before the curses had covered her in feathers and made such garments worse than useless.
Jessica chuckled to herself as Rhena briefly struggled with her breasts, but then she was shimmying into the kirtle, and a moment later was fully clad. The brown kirtle enclosed her tail so that only the tip poked out from beneath the hemline of the skirt. Rhena spread her paws over the skirt, noting the way the fabric turned as she turned; her whiskers twitched in mirth as she took a few tentative barepawed steps, her first as a woman.
"That looks very comfortable," Jessica said warmly. "What of your boots?"
"A little loose," Rhena admitted as she cast a glance at the empty boots standing alone by her pack. "I guess I should pack them up for now. I'll need them when you change me back." She crouched over her pack and carefully folded her old tunic and breeches. These, along with her old boots she stuffed into the bottom of the pack, rearranging the contents until she was satisfied. After pulling all of the drawstrings tight, she slung it over both shoulders, stood up, and smiled to Jessica. "How do I look?"
"A young woman who needs to be very careful," Jessica said with a little worry in her voice. She reached out and wrapped the skunk in her wings. "You be careful, Rhena! You aren't going to be able to defend yourself the way you used to."
Rhena flinched at the hug, but softened after a moment to return it though it was hesitant and awkward. "I will be careful," she assured the hawk. "When I'm ready to change back, how do I meet you?"
"You may find me in Metamor if you wish, or you may send a courier with a message. Whatever seems best to you." Jessica let the uncertain skunk go and then fixed her with a firm stare. "I may need to check on you in a week or two to make sure that the spell is in good shape. We don't want it falling apart on you accidentally."
"Oh no, of course not! How will you find me?"
"I can follow my spells. And before you ask, if you run into any other mages, they won't be able to tell that you are under two, nearly three of the Keep's curses. But, whatever you choose to tell people of yourself, do not change it here or there. You will only get yourself in trouble trying to remember two or three stories."
Rhena nodded and took a deep breath. "Thank you, Jessica. I hope one day I can repay the rest of the debt I owe you."
"One day you might," Jessica replied, then patted the skunk on the shoulder and spread her wings. "May the gods watch over you, Rhena."
"And you too, Jessica!"
The hawk leaped into the air and beat her wings until she was circling high above the trees. Below her the female skunk continued down the road, skirt twisting back and forth with every step. Jessica offered a prayer for her safety, and then, with the money pouch firmly clutched in her talons, headed back to Metamor.
Jessica left the money in her old apartment at the Keep before meeting Weyden and her friends for a little recreation about the newly boisterous Keeptowne. They enjoyed a show from the Magyars, before reporting to the practice fields for training. Maud was still a little awkward as a giraffe and all of them helped her adjust to swinging a much bigger sword, and to learning how to deal with opponents much smaller than she. Jessica used the opportunity to check the transformation spell she'd affixed to Larssen's wife, but found that it was in much the same shape as the conduits racing back to the hyacinth. A few days more and it would probably fall apart and need to be recast.
After they finished their training, Jessica took leave of them once again and flew back to Lake Barnhardt. It only took about an hour and a half to make the flight, and so the sun was just setting as she reached the small city by the lake. Naomi was waiting for her on the roof of a small cluster of buildings near the castle abutting the lake. She waved to the hawk, and when Jessica landed, they embraced quickly.
"How is Edgar?"
Naomi's smile faded. "She tried to play with her sisters some today. Harald's out now gathering them in. Come down and I'll find you a perch for the table."
Naomi's home was modest with only a few rooms; those in back for sleeping, while those in front for cooking, eating, and play. Naomi had bought a stew that afternoon and it was heating over a cast iron stove, spreading a meaty and potato flavor throughout the room. Jessica waited by the table, feeling a heady inebriation at being so close to the hyacinth twice in one day.
The wolfish blacksmith returned with their three children in tow only a few minutes later. Jessica's sharp eyes found Edgar, still dressed in boyish clothes despite the obvious feminine qualities she now possessed. But, to the hawk's dismay, Edgar spied her just as quickly, and before Naomi could even introduce her, the freshly Cursed girl stomped one foot and shook her head, glaring at her mother with a hideously pained expression. "She's the one who made that Keeper a giraffe. Did you bring her to make me a boy again, Mother?"
Naomi almost dropped the bowls she'd been carrying. "Oh, Edgar, no, I..." She looked at her husband, face suddenly full of pain.
"Heidi, Tessa, go to your room and clean up," Harald said to the two younger girls. They almost skipped past, eager for any excuse to avoid whatever had been brewing. He then turned, tail wagging slightly, ears erect, on Edgar and shook his head. "Jessica isn't here to fix you. You don't need fixing."
"I'm here because the Curse has just taken hold of you," Jessica offered in a quiet voice that she hoped would be soothing to the young girl. "If the Curse's hold on you is not strong yet, then maybe I can do something to help people your age become what they want to be instead of whatever the curse decides. I just want to look at you and try a few things..."
"No!" Edgar snapped, her voice rising in pitch an octave. "I'm a girl now and that's that! Just like my mother!"
"Then might I look for the sake of others?"
Harald put a heavy paw on his daughter's shoulder to steady her, but she pushed it off. "No! Just leave me alone!"
This is for the sake of the many you can help. It would be right to make her listen.
Jessica always trusted her instincts, and with the family ready to tear itself apart, there really was no other choice but to slap her wings together before her, a nimbus of violet light flashing through the room and coating everyone present. She could feel the hyacinth twisting in its rooftop garden, one of the cups draining of its power in that sudden evocation.
Naomi, Harald, and Edgar all blinked for several seconds, their expressions gone slack and uncomprehending. The forgetfulness would not last long, but it gave Jessica a few minutes to do what she needed. She poked and prodded at the black mass of the Curse that had reshaped Edgar into a girl. The network of intersecting lines between that mass and her essence were already a complicated labyrinth that despite its newness and immaturity still seemed impossible to follow. The hawk pulled at each one she came across, but none of them would yield to her strength. Even when she drew on the hyacinth's many bands, she could only pry a few of the tendrils of the Curse loose.
Edgar remained, no matter what Jessica did, stubbornly female. After her midday triumph with Rhena, to be so completely balked with this child infuriated the hawk. She clawed and tore at the spell, beating her wings against it, and pecking it with her hooked beak like a crazed and starved beast. Resolute it remained, mocking her with its thousands of filaments threading through Edgar's flesh and spirit.
They are waking.
Jessica could see her hosts begin to blink and shake their heads as the forgetfulness wore off. She withdrew her focus from Edgar and returned to her perch beside the table, speaking a few soft words to still any anger in their hearts. "I have not come to do anything to you, Edgar. Unless you ask it of me. I am here as a friend, nothing more. I know how much you must hurt. But you don't have to hurt now. I'm sorry I couldn't do more. You... you will be a strong woman like your mother who loves you very much."
She closed her beak and waited a few more seconds before Naomi set the bowls out and sighed with a faint dismay. "Edgar, if that is all, please get your sisters so we can share this meal together."
The young girl nodded, offering her mother and father an odd look. "You don't have to call me Edgar any more, Mother. I'm more of a... Edwina now. It's okay. Really. I'll be fine. Just like you."
Naomi's face blossomed with tears as she wrapped her arms around her newest daughter. Harald grimaced and looked on with an uncomfortable expression. For several seconds mother and daughter held each other tight, both of them crying into each others arms. Jessica felt great comfort in seeing it.
Edwina pushed back first, gazing up into her mother's face with a slight tremor in her lips, but growing confidence in her blue eyes. "I love you, mother. Could we continue archery practice tomorrow?"
"Aye, Ed... Edwina, we can. I love you too. Now go fetch your sisters."
Edwina ran off into the closed room and was quickly met by a pair of high pitched voices shouting her new name. Harald took the serving spoon from Naomi's weak grasp and began quietly parceling out the stew. Naomi looked to Jessica and sighed, "I guess we don't need you here after all, Jessica. You are welcome to stay for dinner."
"I'd love to," Jessica replied with a pleased squawk. "You have such a lovely family, Naomi. Thank you for inviting me to spend a little time with you. I only hope that Weyden and I can have such a lovely family one day."
"You will," Naomi replied with a confident sigh. "You will."
And she would, with the help of the hyacinth, unlock the secrets of the Curse too. Jessica cracked her beak in a smile as she settled her wings behind her back. "I know I will."